Gridlock Guy: The safest cars for teens – which ones rank and how did they get there?

The summer driving season is here and last week we covered both the advent of this happy time and the major risks it brings, especially with the youngest drivers. Fittingly, consumer rankings publication U.S. News and World Report has just released its latest list of best vehicles for teenagers.

The Kia Soul comes in as the best, cheapest new SUV for teens on this annual list. The Hyundai Elantra tops sedans in that same $20,000-$25,000 new autos-category.

The automobile market has moved well past the COVID-19-era shortages, as automakers have flushed dealerships with oversupply. This has caused prices to soften, U.S. News and World Report senior editor and automotive correspondent John Vincent said.

Vincent and USNWR’s team of researchers index several factors in arriving at this grid of vehicle types and price points. They also rank the best used cars for teens.

“We look at predicted reliability for used cars. We look at cost-of-ownership for all of the cars. We look at the technology that’s available, specifically for team drivers, things like systems that monitor where the car is driven, how fast the car is driven, and certain events during the drive like hard braking incidents,” Vincent told the AJC and 95.5 WSB. “They also look at every reliable review out there in the marketplace and use that to develop our new car rankings and reviews.”

So, why did the Kia Soul SUV score so well? “You’re getting more with the bigger cars, generally more features, but a car like the Kia Soul - it comes loaded with high tech safety features, automatic emergency braking. Things like that really move the needle when it comes to avoiding accidents,” Vincent explained.

Vincent noted the advantages of SUVs and trucks. “Physics still plays a part. And bigger cars do better and [have better] safety ratings generally than smaller cars.”

The increase in vehicle-size and the dangers that poses to surrounding commuters inside and outside of cars is a prevalent concern in the urbanist-transportation community. Vincent acknowledged the drawbacks, despite those cons not affecting the rankings. “You put your kid in a light duty pickup truck or a big, three-row SUV and that is a pretty big weapon on the road - especially, if they’re not experienced enough to handle something that big and heavy.”

This speaks to the idea of parents favoring a compact car like the Hyundai Elantra, which has a mixture of safety features and reliability with less consequences to the surrounding environment.

Cost-of-ownership also plays into why gas-electric models like the Elantra Hybrid (priced a few thousand dollars more), the Hyundai Tucson SUV hybrid, and the Toyota Camry hybrid all charted. The Camry was in the highest price point on the list at $35,000-$40,000. “They can simply afford to drive them because they’re getting good gas mileage and they can fill the tank,” Vincent said. “You don’t have to fill the tank more than once every couple of weeks.”

The idea is to pay just a bit more up front and then save more money in the long run.

I was always under the mindset that young (and broke) drivers should start with a reliable clunker - a hoopty that is just safe enough to be responsible and just nasty enough to take a bruise. Toddlers should not play with the fine China.

But Vincent said that cheap, running used cars are simply very rare. But the biggest surprise on his team’s list is a slightly used car. “The one that surprised me until I really started thinking about it was the " Best Large Car” - and that’s the 2020-2021 Nissan Maxima. And it’s simply because that car is easy to buy. They’re affordable in the used car market. Their cost of ownership is relatively low because maintenance costs on the maximum are very low.”

Maxima’s are a strange mix of availability and rarity. “It’s a big old sedan and we don’t have any big, old sedans left.”

Vincent thinks parents should strongly consider newer models because of their potential longevity. “Here’s the thing about the Kias and the Hyundais on this list: they come with a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.” This gives teens warranty coverage through college and potentially grad school, potentially thwarting a major expense in midst of paying student loans, getting married, or buying that first house.

Vincent also said that concerns should temper on car loan interest rates: they are simply rising back to their realistic levels and not higher than they have been in the last 50 years. Recent times, as with other industries, brought historic lows, he said.

EVs and more hybrids will enter these rankings, Vincent thinks, because more will enter the used car market and become affordable.

And for those wondering about self-driving vehicles lowering the risk for teens, Vincent maintains that, despite what some makers claim, there is not a fool-proof autonomous car yet. However, “There are some very good systems that manage the adaptive cruise control and the steering and braking. They do a great job of driving. The best one is GM Super Cruise, which has a camera that makes sure that your eyes are still focused on the road.” That is available on select GM models. “I like it because it forces you to still be a good driver even though the car is taking you over the heavy lifting.”

Vincent also said that cars with the infotainment dashboard systems are, in one sense, safer. But the safest cars still have tactile buttons for climate control, volume, and cruise control that are not on screens.

The less that drivers touch those infotainment dashes, the better, Vincent said. And he noted that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto have many voice command controls, making their interfaces safer than screen-swiping.

For my two cents, I will never buy or rent a car again without CarPlay. That and Android Auto are the biggest gates to hands-free driving. And with the above measures in mind, I will have even more to consider in my next car-buying experience.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. Download the Triple Team Traffic Alerts App to hear reports from the WSB Traffic Team automatically when you drive near trouble spots. Contact him at Doug.Turnbull@cmg.com.

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